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Two Environmental Activists Convicted for Civil Disobedience

A Nanaimo judge ruled today that the peril of climate change is insufficient in justifying the duo’s actions.

Peter Fairley 3 May 2024The Tyee

Peter Fairley is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria and San Francisco, whose writing has appeared in Scientific American, New Scientist, Hakai Magazine, the New York Times, the Atlantic, Nature and elsewhere.

Two climate activists who argued that the threat of climate change justified their efforts to block highways, banks and airports were convicted today in a Nanaimo court.

Provincial Court Judge Ronald Lamperson rejected the precedent-setting defence of necessity from Melanie Murray and Howard Breen, which was based on their claim that the urgency of the climate crisis required them to break the law.

“I’ve no doubt on the evidence that climate change constitutes an existential threat to life in Canada and everywhere else in the world,” Lamperson said. “This fact is established by widely accepted current science and has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.”

But Lamperson ruled the peril of climate change is not sufficiently imminent and unavoidable to justify the activism under Canadian law.

Lamperson also ruled that Breen and Murray’s actions were “choices” as opposed to the “morally involuntary” illegal acts that can be forgiven under Canadian law.

He cited precedent from the BC Court of Appeal, which found in 2020 that acts of civil disobedience are unlikely ever to be excusable under Canadian law.

Breen and Murray will likely be sentenced in June.

While today’s ruling is a disappointment for Breen and Murray, lawyers representing other activists say the trial has already broken legal ground and advanced the defence of necessity.

Lamperson was the first Canadian judge to allow climate activists to present expert testimony in support of a necessity defence during the trial last August.

Breen and Murray’s lawyer, Vancouver-based attorney Joey Doyle, was able to introduce scientific evidence establishing the existential peril that climate change poses, as well as expert testimony on the role of civil disobedience in advancing justice in democratic societies.

University of British Columbia philosophy professor Kimberley Brownlee testified that civil disobedience strengthens, rather than undermines, the rule of law.  [Tyee]

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